11/27/2008 – Somebody will get a trip to tropical Cancun, Mexico, come early March. Somebody else is headed to wintry Montreal in February.
With the Houston Dynamo earning the last berth in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, the anticipation now shifts to December 10, when the draw will set the knockout round pairings and the route each team will have to take to the title.
The Dynamo’s 1:0 victory over Luis Angel Firpo on Wednesday night in Houston gave fans of USA’s Major League Soccer reason to pay attention to the quarterfinals and capped the Group Stage with a dramatic finish.
As some had predicted, Mexican teams dominated the competition, with all four advancing to the quarterfinals, and three of them: Pumas UNAM, Santos and Atlante, winning their groups.
That will give each of them the advantage of hosting the second leg in the quarterfinals when the competition resumes the last week of February. Honduras’ CD Marathon won the one group a Mexican side didn’t, and also will have a second leg match at home the first week of March.
But that still leaves a lot possibilities. With regulations that will pit each group winner against a runner-up — albeit not the same one from its own group, either Marathon, Pumas or Santos will be playing in Montreal.
“Montreal is a team very aware of how it wants to play,” said Brian Dunseth, who played eight years in the USA’s Major League Soccer and is a veteran of the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Dunseth, who now works as a commentator for Fox Soccer Channel in the United States — one of several TV partners broadcasting the Champions League, says the thought of playing in some place like Montreal in February has worked as a psychological advantage for a home team in the past. “You know it’s going to happen, you just have to deal with it,” Dunseth said. “The idea in tournaments like this is when you go on road, get the result. When you come back home, play to your strength.” Conversely, whoever gets drawn against Atlante will at the very least get a chance for a sun tan in Cancun.
As the Group Stage worked to a conclusion, it was clear who had momentum. Pumas finished as the only unbeaten team with the most balanced attack, outscoring its opponents 18-7.
The Puerto Rico Islanders, on the other hand, lost two of their last three, went winless over the last half of the Group Stage and advanced as the second-placed team from Group D despite being outscored 10-9.
Likewise, Cruz Azul won only one of its last three and needed help from Marathon – which beat Deportivo Saprissa 2:0 in their final game – to get to the knockout round.
All of the momentum could change by February, with transfer periods enabling teams to add players and 30-man rosters being changed only slightly or overhauled.
Regardless, teams already are starting to line up for next year’s Champions League. The USA’s Major League Soccer already has determined its clubs with Houston and D.C. United set to return to the CONCACAF club championship for a fourth straight year and the Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls preparing to make their debut appearances.